Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday threw his formidable support behind the concept of a San Francisco-style environmental crackdown that would prohibit Chicago retailers large and small from putting their merchandise in plastic bags.
“We are supportive of the goals of this ordinance for a clean and healthy Chicago and are working closely with the sponsor and Chairman [George] Cardenas” to fine-tune the details, Sarah Hamilton, the mayor’s communications director, said in an e-mail to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Last year, the mayor’s opposition derailed a ban-the-bag ordinance that would have been confined to large retailers with more than 5,000 square feet of floor space.
Now, the mayor has thrown his support behind an even tougher version impacting all Chicago retailers.That sets the stage for an April 15 committee vote and a full Council vote after that.
On Tuesday, it became apparent why Emanuel changed his mind.
The Committee on Health and Environmental Protection held a hearing on the tougher, ban-the-bag ordinance championed by Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno (1st) and only one alderman spoke against it.
The Illinois Retail Merchants Association made another pitch for recycling education and for a 10-cent tax on paper bags to change consumer behavior. Vice-President and general counsel Tanya Triche even raised the specter of Dominick’s decision to withdraw from the Chicago market and warned of more store closings.
But after waiting years for City Council action, Moreno had no patience for, what he called “scare tactics.”
The alderman said he’s willing to give smaller stores in particular anywhere from eight to 18 months to implement the ban. But that’s about it.
“These plastic bags are costing Chicago taxpayers millions. We have to clean up our trees. We have to clean up our wards. We have to unclog our sewers. They go in our landfills. They are already costing us. And your association has worked tirelessly in the state of Illinois to try to have no bans,” Moreno told Triche.
“Your industry has had six years…to come up with a comprehensive solution, and nothing has changed. One and a half percent of the 3 billion bags that are used in the city are recycled. That’s a shameful number. There’s not any more time. Many other cities are in front of us . . . There has not been one study in the United States or the world that has shown that banning these bags are bad for business. It’s a scare tactic.”
Ald. James Cappleman (46th) said until there’s rigorous enforcement of the widely-ignored plastic bag recycling ordinance approved in 2008, he will feel “strongly pressured out of my love for the earth” to support the tougher ban.
“It was high-time decades ago . . . When I was in Scotland in 1977 with some friends going shopping, we were using recycled bags back then,” Cappleman said.
Health Committee Chairman George Cardenas (12th) rejected the demand for a 10-cent tax on paper and other non-reusable bags.
“I’m the one who introduced a [nickel-a-bottled] tax on bottled water years ago because we wanted to drive down the use of plastic bottles when consuming water, which is something you can get off the tap,” Cardenas said.
“Initially there was a downtrend. But it didn’t budge. It’s now up in usage again. The financial incentive is not going to do it alone. It has to be coupled with education and good policy to drive those numbers down.”
The only alderman dead-set against banning plastic bags was Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), who argued that his far Southwest Side ward is “already hemorrhaging business” to the suburbs of Evergreen Park, Oak Lawn and Blue Island.
“We must consider the whole picture and recognize that lofty ideas and good intentions that we have in this building do have a tangible impact on those who chose to operate a business in Chicago,” O’Shea said.
“My phone has been ringing off the hook the past three days from small business owners begging me to stand up for them. They have a real fear about this. This is gonna be just another nail in their coffin . . . This is just one more reason for businesses to close their doors and move to where there’s less-restrictive government.”
In 2008, Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke (14th) proposed a ban on non-compostable plastic bags to curb the flood of bags stuck in trees and fences, jamming landfills and waterways and blamed for the annual death of a million birds and 100,000 marine animals.
But Burke backed off after retailers joined forces with then-Mayor Richard M. Daley against the ban.
Retailers helped draft a recycling compromise and went along with it, even after expressing strong reservations about the cost.
Moreno has argued that the recycling ordinance has been a bust, with only 10 percent of the three billion bags used in Chicago each year actually recycled.